As warm and diverse as you could hope for a modern country album to be, Barricades & Brickwalls is filled with artifice-free tales of heartbreak, emotional independence and the great loneliness so often hidden in the amiable character of the Australian people. That its author, Kasey Chambers, the 25-year-old former nomad with the big-sounding little-girl voice, can so consistently transcend absolutely run-of-the-mill material is testament to her prodigious singing, the intuitive playing of her band and the superb production work done by her brother Nash Chambers. In stark contrast to most Nashville and alt.country products, even when the words let it down, Barricades & Brickwalls is carried by its classic sound.
This is an inviting record that comforts and soothes and warms like a favorite blanket and, on the right day, is the perfect salve for everything from deep-seated heartache to a vague, unspecified case of the blues. It's flawed and inconsistent mainly because the uptempo stuff is nowhere near as convincing as the downtempo, downbeat material. But much more than her 2000 debut, The Captain, B&B should serve as the coming-out party for an artist who could eventually prove herself worthy of acclaim usually reserved for the likes of Lucinda Williams (who guests here) and Iris DeMent (who doesn't).
The voice grabs you immediately, the way Maria McKee did at 18, or Iris at 31, and gets to the heart of all the things the words aren't refined enough to suggest. "Nullarbor Song," titled for the great Australian flatland that Chambers called home when her parents spent her early years traversing the least hospitable part of the country, is as good a piece of braggadocio as any of the other 12 tracks (plus one hidden and entirely avoidable political one). If there's another song released this year that nails that wide-screen feeling of isolation and vulnerability like this one does, it'll probably still be shy Chambers' crumbling vocal and the unadorned melody that light up a delicate arrangement like the Southern Cross in the night sky.
It will be interesting to see where Chambers goes from here. She has her fingers all over the history of country music; covering Gram Parsons ("Still Feeling Blue") with suitable sass, mixing in electric guitar-based cuts for balance and texture (with the help of punk-popsters the Living End) and running the Grand Ole gamut from shuffles to bluegrass to poppier numbers like "Not Pretty Enough," any of which, in the wake of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, could storm the charts. On record at least, her manner is certainly not yet outside the comfort zone of the middle class and her sincerity always comes through, even when she's grabbing a glass and kicking some ass and drinking away her tears.
Of course, the sinister cash grab will offer itself at some point if it hasn't already. If she wants it, Chambers could be the next Dixie Chicks. But the music here makes me think she's too interested in creating something of lasting worth to reduce herself to that kind of pablum. Comparisons to Williams and DeMent, and Emmylou and Dolly while we're at it, are not only appropriate but could be expanded to include Steve Earle, who declared his disgust at boundaries and propriety from his first albums and kept growing from there. It's a destiny that might befall Chambers if she, as the brightest of new country hopes, remembers her roots and continues to dance with Hank and Lefty and all the other spirits what brung her.